My last post was on the Sirens in the Odyssey, and as a follow up I thought I’d write a quick post about how Helen is portrayed in the Odyssey. We see Helen in Book 4, returned to her husband and playing the role of the obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the the court of King Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts. Since the Trojan War Odysseus has vanished from Greece. Menelaus welcomes Telemachus but does not recognise him. It is Helen who correctly reveals the identity of the young prince. The group drink together and reminisce about the heroes at Troy, weeping for those who are lost. Helen then does something very curious. She mixes a drug into the men’s wine. It is a drug that removes all sorrow, so that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not be sad.
Helen then tells Telemachus her story of her encounter with Odysseus at Troy. Odysseus has dressed up as a beggar and snuck into Troy to gather information. His disguise fools everyone but Helen:
‘I alone recognised and questioned him, and he cunningly tried to deceive me. But when I had bathed him, anointed and clothed him, and solemnly sworn not to name him in Troy as Odysseus before he reached camp and the swift ships, he revealed the Achaean plans. And after slaying many Trojans with the long sword he returned to the Argive host with a wealth of information. While the rest of the Trojan women were wailing their grief, my spirit was glad, since my heart was already longing for home, and I sighed at the blindness Aphrodite had dealt me, drawing me there from my own dear country, abandoning daughter and bridal chamber, and a husband lacking neither in wisdom nor looks.’
On the one hand this story looks like praise of Odysseus. He is cunning in his disguise and successful in his mission, taking back to the Greeks information that will help them defeat Troy. And Helen is his helpful ally, keeping his secret and longing to return back to her husband. There are however some slightly more disturbing undertones. Odysseus does not trust Helen. He does not reveal his plans until she has sworn that she will not betray. And rather than letting Odysseus continue with his mission she questions him, takes him inside and effectively removes his beggar’s disguise by bathing him.
Menelaus then has his own story to tell about Helen’s interactions with Odysseus in Troy. The Greeks are hidden in the belly of the wooden horse and have been taken into the city:
‘Then, summoned it may be by some god who thought to hand victory to the Trojans, you arrived, with godlike Deiphobus on your heels. You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives. Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, and I, and Odysseus were there among them, hearing you call, and Diomedes and I were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. The rest of the Achaeans kept silent too, though Anticlus wanted to call out, and reply, till Odysseus clapped his strong hands over his mouth, saving all the Achaeans, and he grasped him so till Pallas Athene led you away.’
I love this passage, I think it is absolutely chilling! Helen can sense something is wrong: she encircles the Greeks, eerily echoing their wives’ voices. It works like a spell, tempting the soldiers forget themselves and cry out. Helen is with Deiphobus, her new husband after the death of Paris. Meanwhile her first husband hides in the belly of the horse, ready to raze to the ground the city that took her from him.
Both times Helen sees through the disguise of Odysseus, and both times she is the only one. She is a match for our hero, and she is a very dangerous one. In these stories she has the potential to betray the Greeks with her voice, and only Odysseus is able to resist her. As in my post on the Sirens there is anxiety about the female voice, about its power to drive men to forget themselves and uncover their secrets.
With her potions and spells Helen is almost witch-like in the Odyssey. She has achieved with Menelaus what Circe and Calypso tried but failed to achieve with Odysseus. She keeps a man in her thrall with her beauty. Despite everything Menelaus has taken her back, he believes that all her actions against him were the fault of an evil god, and she lives as queen in Sparta. She is contained in the household, playing the part of the model housewife and host. And yet there is an underlying anxiety, expressed in brief glimpses of her power and hidden questions about her loyalty.
Further reading on the portrayal of Helen in Homer:
‘Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey‘ by Lillian Eileen Dohert (1995)